Discovering infidelity is a common reason that couples seek therapy. Infidelity is much more frequent than one might expect, and the popular culture tends to equate infidelity with a loveless or passionless marriage.

In my work as a couples therapist, I often discover marriages that have experienced infidelity but that clash with this popular conception. In my post-graduate training as a couples, family and sex therapist, I was taught that infidelity is a symptom of a marital flaw. Therefore, the thinking goes, couples therapy following the discovery of infidelity should seek to identify and address the underlying flaw, while re-building trust to attempt to repair the pain and suffering caused by the infidelity.

But I would amend this message to include the possibility that not every affair is a symptom of a marital problem. Sometimes is an affair is an indicator that the person seeking involvement outside the marriage is suffering or struggling while not consciously aware of the extent or impact of their internal pain. This analysis is not meant to excuse infidelity, but is intended to explore how affairs sometimes occur within the context of a good marriage.

Denzel Washington’s intensely human direction of a film based on the legendary, Pulitzer Prize willing August Wilson play Fences represents a cinematic depiction of a marriage full of love, respect and passion that, nevertheless, succumbs to infidelity. Troy (Denzel Washington) is a trash collector and Rose (Viola Davis) is a homemaker. They are struggling to make ends meet in their working-class 1950s neighborhood. The bulk of the film’s narrative unfolds in the backyard of their small, understated but lovely home where Troy makes sporadic and inconsistent efforts to construct a household fence. This fence exists as a metaphor for the question of boundaries. Relationships and boundary testing between Troy, Rose, their teenage son, Troy’s grown son from his first marriage, Troy’s disabled brother and their greater community unfold with candor, dignity and compassion. The chemistry and love between Troy and Rose feels present and potent despite the array of adversity swirling around them.

Despite their relational strengths, conscious and unconscious conflicts lead to life-altering sabotage and suffering. In addition to demonstrating how a good marriage might succumb to infidelity, Fences is a psychologically sophisticated tale that demonstrates the human vulnerability to repeating the most painful dimensions of one’s past. Fences also celebrates the power of family love and how, if each generation can emotionally give just a bit more than they received, inter-generational progress is possible.

Elisabeth LaMotte

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